Gender Differences: Socially Conditioned and Reinforced through the Media

8 years ago

Sharon Begley is my hero. Begley is a senior editor and science writer at Newsweek magazine. In column after column, she debunks junk evolutionary psychology "science" and other theories that insist that gender differences are 100% hard wired. Back in June 2009, Begley wrote "Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around?," which thoroughly trashed an evolutionary psychology theory that it is in human (male) genes to rape because 100,000 years ago: who carried rape genes had a reproductive and evolutionary edge over men who did not: they sired children not only with willing mates, but also with unwilling ones, allowing them to leave more offspring (also carrying rape genes) who were similarly more likely to survive and reproduce, unto the nth generation. That would be us. And that is why we carry rape genes today. The family trees of prehistoric men lacking rape genes petered out.

Last week, Begley discoursed on a new book by Lise Eliot, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It (available online or at a fine bookstore near you starting today!). Eliot reviewed hundreds of scientific studies, and concluded that there is "little solid evidence of sex differences in children's brains." Along the way, Eliot presents compelling evidence that people treat baby boys and girls differently (even if they think they are not doing so nor intend to):

In one [study], scientists dressed newborns in gender-neutral clothes and misled adults about their sex. The adults described the "boys" (actually girls) as angry or distressed more often than did adults who thought they were observing girls, and described the "girls" (actually boys) as happy and socially engaged more than adults who knew the babies were boys. Dozens of such disguised-gender experiments have shown that adults perceive baby boys and girls differently, seeing identical behavior through a gender-tinted lens. In another study, mothers estimated how steep a slope their 11-month-olds could crawl down. Moms of boys got it right to within one degree; moms of girls underestimated what their daughters could do by nine degrees, even though there are no differences in the motor skills of infant boys and girls. But that prejudice may cause parents to unconsciously limit their daughter's physical activity. How we perceive children—sociable or remote, physically bold or reticent—shapes how we treat them and therefore what experiences we give them.

(Emphasis mine.) Begley explains that the result of this gendered way of looking at babies impacts the development of brains, and "these various experiences produce sex differences in adult behavior and brains—the result not of innate and inborn nature but of nurture." Neither Eliot nor Begley deny that adult men and women have differences, but they use explain how interactions as babies could cause them. This is not saying that all people are the same, as the book also covers general differences in the development of baby boys and girls, but that people develop cognitively in different ways, and boys may be more likely to be one way than girls because of how we treat them while brains are at their most impressionable.

Laura Vanderkam at The Gifted Exchange has been reading Eliot's book while waiting to give birth to second son. She wrote:

I find it all very fascinating -- both from the perspective of trying to raise my sons and from what the various research into brain differences says about society. There is some evidence that little girls are becoming more open to playing with boy toys and doing "boy things" which makes sense as women have more paths open to them. On the other hand, boys are still being raised largely as boys -- we worry more about boys being sissies than girls being aggressive go-getters. Eliot also points out that a big problem with brain research is that studies that show gender differences tend to get the headlines. So, when one study seems to show that women do better on spatial reasoning when they are menstruating (and hence have less estrogen coursing through their blood), this gets trumpeted in the popular press with headlines like "Hormones make men and women better and worse at math!" Then, of course, when follow-up studies fail to replicate this result, there are no headlines.

The media bias against printing stories that don't confirm stereotypes is what makes me love Begley so much. I would not have heard of Eliot's book had she not covered it (and, to be fair, a friend who works at the Guttmacher Foundation had not linked to Begley's article on Facebook). I've cited this before, but I still believe that a 2008 article in Bitch magazine by Beth Skwarecki (who writes the Science and miscellanea blog - awesome!) on how to "deconstruct bunk reporting" is a must-read for anyone who cares about how the mainstream media promotes gender stereotypes through their headlines. Now that I think about it, Skwarecki is also one of my heroes, too. And I'll add Lise Eliot to the list while I'm at it.

Smart women who use science and clear prose to create a better understanding of gender constructs rock!

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants. When not blogging or looking for steady employment, she promotes her book, Off the Beaten (Subway) Track, which is about unusual things to see and do in NYC.

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